Hands-on Ferguson grasps the nettle

United at the crossroads: Manager's answer to the crisis talk may be to spend more time on the training ground
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Uncertainty whips through Old Trafford with as devastating an effect as a bad spirit in a Harry Potter tale. Like a footballing Albus Dumbledore (the wizard and headmaster of Hogwarts School, lest that cinematic and literary phenomenen has passed you by), the powers of Sir Alex Ferguson are said to be on the wane. Some in the game observe the signs with undisguised relish; most of his rivals will have been doing so with sheer relief.

Already there are those who are prepared to believe, almost certainly prematurely, that this is a watershed; that the power base of the Premiership is in the process of transferring away from Manchester United, and Arsenal, too, for that matter, to Leeds and Liverpool.

Those closest to Ferguson will impress on you that the resourceful Scot is not only very much alive to the threat from Yorkshire and Merseyside but is as deadly determined as he has been over his 15 years, an anniversary he should have been celebrating this month, to resist such challenges.

If he required a wake-up call that all was not as it should be, it arrived on Saturday, 20 October, the day when his horse, Rock Of Gibraltar, galloped home in the 3.30 at Newmarket to triumph in the Darley Dewhurst Stakes, the most prestigious events for two-year-olds in the English racing calendar. Some 90 minutes later he suffered the ignominy of witnessing his team humiliated at home by newly-promoted Bolton Wanderers. What should have been his most joyful day since he first acquired an interest in four-legged excellence, had been eclipsed by defeat.

Since then, however, matters have scarcely improved and it has become no longer just a case of losing matches, according to Ferguson's critics, among them the former manager Tommy Docherty. "This situation shows that Fergie has lost the dressing-room" is the diagnosis of "The Doc". If so, it applies even to those brought up in Sir Alex Ferguson's School of Divine Arts. When Paul Scholes, a player whom you suspect was not so much born of natural parents but discovered one day in a crib in the bowels of the stadium, such is his affinity and love for the club, becomes one of the lost souls, it is the most damning circumstantial evidence that fissures are appearing in the Colosseum.

Recent club history alone tells us that the current malaise is probably temporary, and much of United's fallibility is concerned with the absence of the injured Roy Keane, but it is impossible to ignore the theory that what we are witnessing is not merely the final months of a spectacularly successful career but the beginning of the break-up of his empire. And that the method of his exit next May, a highly protracted business considering that it was first formally announced on 16 January this year, must be held as partly responsible for the problems that are befalling him.

If you're Alex Ferguson, anonymous 59-year-old pen-pusher or bean-coster, you can acceptably organise a long-planned retirement, choosing a Saga cruise, maybe emigration to warmer climes, or in this case, relaxing with a stimulating hobby like horseracing. High-profile football managers cannot. Not in an industry as capricious as Ferguson's has become. As a source close to him told me: "I think he understands that now. In hindsight, he may have done it all differently."

It is difficult not to conclude that Ferguson's time at Old Trafford should have been swiftly curtailed, unless the unlikely circumstances had prevailed in which his successor had been appointed to work alongside him (such as in the case of Steve McClaren, who may yet turn out to be the man United spurned in error).

In addition, and perhaps just as crucially, Ferguson has never replaced his assistant, McClaren, with an outside appointment, but instead promoted Jim Ryan, who, together with Mike Phelan, is responsible for day-to-day coaching. My understanding is that one of the responses Ferguson will make to the current circumstances is to spend far more time with the players on the training pitch and educate them thoroughly in the requirements of his newly-designed system.

Obsessional in his desire to depart with one last title and a Champions' League trophy, this summer Ferguson transformed the whole shape, the whole philosophy, of the team with the acquisition of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastian Veron for a touch under £50 million. In doing so, he undoubtedly altered the whole attitude of his players towards him.

That was understandable. The squad had seemingly become more than a little stale by the lack of stimulating competition for their places, despite United securing a seventh Premiership title under him in nine years. What nobody could have foreseen was the brusque removal of Jaap Stam, and his replacement by the veteran former France captain Laurent Blanc. The result has been a shipping of goals and a torrid period for the England contender Wes Brown. In attack, meanwhile, the opportunities of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole have been frequently limited by the utilising of Van Nistelrooy as a lone assault weapon.

Ferguson is a past master, not merely at producing a team above and beyond the standard demanded by directors and supporters, but at maintaining that momentum. He knew just when to install Roy Keane, Yorke, Cole, Teddy Sheringham; when to sell Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis. But these recent changes have been so comprehensive, so revisionist that they have made a considerable impact on every player. Not all have been positive.

When an employer introduces creative tension into his shopfloor with new personnel and a new work regime – here, notably, deploying a single striker with Scholes operating behind him – he must do so in the knowledge that the response of his team may not be quite what he anticipates. Hence, the apparent refusal of Scholes, whose misery at his deployment out of his favoured position has been tangible, to join the United party of "reserves" for the Worthington Cup game against Arsenal on Monday.

In the past, chins would have struck the floor in disbelief. The Old Trafford mantra had always been "Don't cross Fergie. You get just one chance". Indeed, that was David Beckham's warning to his fellow midfielder at the England camp this week, having over the years seen Ince (who had the temerity to regard himself as The Guv'nor when at Old Trafford), Mark Bosnich and most recently, Stam, dispatched by the ruthless one.

But is that still an accurate reflection of the manager's influence over his charges? After all, the mentor to many of these players is leaving soon. Perhaps, even if Ferguson reacted according to his hard-nosed reputation and made the errant Scholes available for transfer – though that appears an unlikely conclusion – it would be no bad thing for the player to move to Juventus, or elsewhere abroad. Could it be that his game would be enhanced by flying the nest?

The same might apply, dare one suggest it, to others. Those like Beckham, who, having incurred the manager's wrath before, is said to have irritated Ferguson yet again with his response of placing an ice-pack on his leg when substituted on Sunday. "Things like that infuriate him. It's fair to say he's far from happy with the attitude of some of the senior players," according to my source.

In hindsight, it would be surprising if Ferguson was not privately regretting the loss of Mark Bosnich, who is enjoying a purple period at Chelsea. The failings of Fabien Barthez, and his effect on the United rearguard, are simply outweighing his undoubted acumen as a shot-stopper. All these factors have conspired to produce a team as steeped in vulnerability as it is in talent. Ferguson has witnessed sluggish starts and indifferent mid-season intervals, of course; most significantly in 1996 when Kevin Keegan's Newcastle had his team chained, padlocked and tied in a straightjacket; by the end Ferguson's men had escaped from the tank, dripping wet but smiling, to claim the championship with points in hand.

It could happen again. Yet, while it would be foolish to diminish United as a force quite yet there is a vulnerability which must have Leeds' David O'Leary and Liverpool's Phil Thompson savouring the prospect of a kill, all the more so since Arsenal are also suffering from their manager's apparent disinclination to agree a new contract. Clearly, Arsène Wenger, who is among those who may succeed Ferguson, is biding his time, and perhaps understandably so. But just as at Old Trafford, his apparent lack of proficiency with a fountain pen serves to create an atmosphere of doubt, particularly with many of his players persuaded to join Arsenal purely because of the Frenchman's very presence.

As a result, a top three Premiership place and access to the Champions' League has become surmountable to several rather than the few, even Glenn Hoddle's much-improved Tottenham who meet Arsenal next Saturday.

It will be fascinating to witness the dénoument of this season's Premiership. Those with United at heart believe that talk of a "crisis" at Old Trafford becomes inevitable every time the champions lose a couple of matches. This is merely a blip and, anyway, Ferguson is easy game for critics. Perhaps so, but if he extricates himself from this predicament, it truly will demonstrate that he is entitled to stand proud in the pantheon of great managers.